A delegation of the Gitxsan people from northwest British Columbia is set to meet with Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl next month with a groundbreaking proposal: That the 13,000 members of their tribe be allowed to abandon their status as "Indians."
The group is willing to relinquish reserves, tax exemptions, Indian Act housing and financial supports in exchange for a share of resources. Unlike most contemporary efforts at treaty-making, it would also abandon the ambition of a separate level of government.
B.C.'s new minister of aboriginal affairs and reconciliation, George Abbott, has met twice with the Gitxsan treaty team and has put his senior negotiator on the file. Mr. Strahl agreed to the meeting after Mr. Abbott sent a letter to Ottawa last week urging him to take a look at the proposed governance model.
In an interview, Mr. Abbott said he has given his negotiators "a mandate to talk and explore." He said the proposal still has many hurdles, including the question of whether elected chiefs or hereditary chiefs can claim to speak for the Gitxsan people. The concept is far outside of the standard treaty model, and it presents a series of constitutional questions about the possibility of taking away, even with consent, the rights accorded to status Indians.
- Can you enfranchise a status Indian?
- Can the government recognize the authority of hereditary chiefs?
- Can you give them a share of resources beyond what's been offered in the past?
And the proposal is by no means universally endorsed by the Gitxsan people, having touched off a power struggle between the hereditary rulers who trace their authority back thousands of years, and the elected band officials who have earned their power through a system created by the Indian Act.
The first nation's treaty team, led by hereditary chiefs, proposes the Gitxsan would become regular, enfranchised Canadian citizens, governed by municipal, provincial and federal governments.
What would the Gitxsan get in exchange? The upfront price tag is some land ownership and cash, but the bigger prize lies down the road: The Gitxsan want a share of the resources that are taken from their 33,000-square-kilometre traditional territories, to be managed by their traditional system of clans and houses.
Taiaiake Alfred, director of the University of Victoria's Indigenous Governance Program, said one aspect that is likely troubling Canada and B.C. is the notion of handing over any control to hereditary chiefs who are not governed by elections. "But it's a form of democracy that is participatory and direct. There is constant dialogue between the people of that community that generates consensus."
The step forward comes as the province's attempts to settle land claims over virtually all of its Crown lands seems deadlocked. As well, earlier this year, an effort led by Premier Gordon Campbell to enact Recognition and Reconciliation legislation collapsed.
"There are some elements to this that make it a very difficult discussion to conclude," Mr. Abbott said.
A key sticking point for the province is that the hereditary chiefs want some measure of control over their entire traditional territory. Most treaty settlements involve some small fraction - often 3 per cent - of a first nation's traditional lands. As well, Mr. Abbott said, the concept of "enfranchising" a status Indian creates a legal quagmire. "The Gitxsan collectively may say they want to be like everyone else. But whether, on an individual basis, their constitutionally entrenched rights around fishing and hunting can be terminated is questionable and needs to be explored."
The Gitxsan's chief negotiator, Elmer Derrick, said the proposal was initially rebuffed because the treaty negotiators for Ottawa and Victoria have tried to fit it into their standard treaty model. He is encouraged that there may be some political will now to see that this will result in better living conditions for his people who currently live in desperately poor conditions - and that it will cost Canadian taxpayers less.
"Every time we sit down with politicians at every level, I make a point of saying the Gitsxan don't want to be a burden on the Crown and we don't want the Crown to be a burden on us," said Chief Derrick, a hereditary chief of the Gitsegukla, one of seven communities of the Gitxsan nation.Report Typo/Error